Rebirth of Reason

War for Men's Minds

Human Certainty: The only kind there is.
by Ed Thompson

It is ... easy to be certain. One has only to be sufficiently vague. -- C. S. Peirce (1839 - 1914) U.S. physicist and logician

Many people in our Kantian era think, mistakenly, that absolutism is incompatible with a contextual approach to knowledge. These people define an "absolute" as a principle independent of any other fact or cognition; i.e., as something unaffected by anthing else in reality or in human knowledge. ...

What then would qualify as an absolute? Only a fact that has no relationships to anything (like Hegel's supernatural Absolute). Such a fact would be knowable only "in itself," by mystic insight, without the "contamination" of any "external" context of evidence.

The modern definition of "absolute" represents the rejection of a rational metaphysics and epistemology. It is the inversion of a crucial truth: relationships are not the enemy of absolutism; they are what make it possible. We prove a conclusion on the basis of facts logically related to it and then integrate it into the sum of our knowledge. That process is what enables us to say: "Everything points to this conclusion; the total context demands it; within these conditions, it is unshakable." -- Peikoff, OPAR, p 174-5

The above 2 quotes highlight a few things regarding the concept of 'certainty' which go a long way in helping us understand what 'certainty' really is. Understanding something becomes much easier when one thoroughly understands its antithesis; e.g. understanding 'evil' for instance, helps us to better understand what it is that 'good' is (and the same may be said for 'love' and 'hate', 'black' and 'white', etc). Knowing what something is not helps us to delineate exactly what it is.

How do we go about discovering what it is that is not certain?

Considering the first quote above, if vagueness is one way to ensure certainty, then precision (read: over-precision) would be one way to go about thwarting certainty. Here is an example of this process at work:

Looking at a map, Sally might claim that Canada is exactly 1300 miles north of Mexico. She might even stake the bold claim of being 'certain' about the truth of this proposition. But Betty might merely say that Canada is north of Mexico, without specifying just how far north it is. And Betty would intuitively know that Sally's claim doesn't afford the same certainty that Betty's claim does. What is the difference in these 2 claims, one affording an absolute certainty, and one failing to do so? The answer is that Betty's claim is sufficiently vague for the context, and Sally's claim is just too precise to maintain complete accuracy in this same context.

How does this example relate to the 2nd quote above?

In the second quote above, Peikoff shows how humans can know things. When humans come to know things, they know them relationally and always within a given context. What does this mean? Using the example of Sally and Betty, the knowable relationship is the geographical relationship between 2 countries, Canada and Mexico. How Canada relates, geographically, to Mexico can be known from such things as maps, travel, and general geographical knowledge of planet Earth. These things provide the context.
While travel merely confirms the correspondence of the map to reality, an actual measurement of distances (from the scale on the map) is required for a more precise identification of the space between the 2 countries which, in this context, would have to be the average distance -- because of the unevenness of the borders of both Canada and Mexico. However, as every part of Canada is north of every part of Mexico, no actual measurement is required in order to make the claim that Canada is north of Mexico. The absolute truth of this proposition is instead, to the sufficiently astute, self-evident.

How does the subtitle to this piece fit in ("The only kind there is")?

The subtitle of this piece alludes to the fact that humans are unique creatures capable of epistemological feats unshared by the animal world -- that we have a unique faculty, or power, of awareness (our conceptual awareness). For instance, it is only humans that can know that Canada is north of Mexico, and the smartest dolphin or chimpanzee doesn't have even an inkling about that fact of reality. But animals do have a pseudo-certainty which they get from sense-perception: "psychological certainty."

There are 2 kinds of "certainty"

The kind of certainty discussed above in the example of Sally and Betty is philosophical certainty -- a certainty about the relations between things in a given context. It is this same kind of relational, contextual certainty that allows us to form contextually-absolute genus-species definitions about things. The other kind of certainty (mentioned just above), psychological certainty, is more appropriately called a pseudo-certainty because it refers more to a feeling or conviction than to any veridical cognition. The feeling/conviction which psychological certainty affords comes from credulity; being easily convinced that something is so.

Animals trust their senses. No, let me rephrase that. Animals never doubt their senses. For all animals except human beings, seeing is always believing. The reason that this is so is because animals don't become conceptually aware of the relational and contextual interaction of the entities in the world (as well as those solely in the mind). This is why animals repeatedly "fall for" illusions; perceptual powers of awareness are all that they have. For a dog, a stick stuck in the water is bent; and the dog, if she were to attempt to dive at the stick under the water, would dive for the crooked part (instead of for a straight stick). Humans, alternatively, learn to understand the phenomenon and begin to treat bent-looking sticks under water as straight ones.

This is not to say that humans don't experience psychological certainty. Unfortunately, they too often do. Harboring a psychological certainty about something (before investigation of it) is one of the greatest roadblocks -- if not, the greatest roadblock -- to the advancement/dissemination of knowledge. After all, it was this sad fact of reality that Galileo faced first-hand, when trying to prove to the willfully ignorant that Copernicus' heliocentric theory was correct!

Proving the contradiction impossible

One 'rough and ready' method of attaining real (philosophical) certainty about a thing is to disprove the contradiction of a given proposition about it. This method is called reductio ad absurdum and its reasoning involves an argument form called modus tollens. Here is an example of this process of attaining certainty about a thing:

Generalization: No live fleas are bigger than any live elephants.

Let's see if we can attain certainty about this inductive generalization. We'll start by assuming the contradiction ...

Contradiction: Some live fleas are bigger than some live elephants.

Okay, now let's disprove the contradicion ...

1) If some live fleas are bigger than some live elephants, then the upper limit of a flea's body size (dictated by their method of passive respiration through pores in their legs) would reach the minimum body size required in order to fit the number of cells required to form the elephants tissues and organs.
2) The upper limit of a flea's body size is orders of magnitude smaller than the minimum body size required in order to "make" a live elephant.
Therefore, no live fleas are bigger than any live elephants (all elephants are bigger). And that generalization is known for certain.

Ed Thompson


Peikoff, Leonard. (OPAR) Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton, 1991.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of C. S. Peirce, ed. by C. Hartshorne, P. Weiss, & A. Burks, 8 vols., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1931-1958.
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